I wake up in the dark to the sound of my grandmother’s voice coming loudly from my cell phone which has slipped down my pillow. “That damned husband of hers had better not mouth off again. He really doesn’t want to mess with me, does he Boo?”
Pretending I have not dozed off and have no idea if we’re talking about a family member or a soap opera character I say, “No ma’am. He sure doesn’t.” I look at the alarm clock across the room and when my nearsighted squint clears the red digital glow I see that it is almost 3am. Gram picks up the conversation and after five minutes of context clues I determine that we are talking about my aunt and her newish husband, who really is turning out to be a no-count dick.
This isn’t an odd scenario for us, we’ve always been abnormally close. My mother is a career woman who took her only child to her mother’s house to get on and off the bus while she worked her way up the corporate ladder. It was in the hours after school that Gram taught me how to play poker, Foxtrot, and walk the line between a lady and a good time. On some rainy days when a particularly good sale was going on or a major story line on General Hospital was slated to unravel, Gram would call my mother to tell her I had developed a strange cough and would need to be in for the day. My mom caught on quick, but reprimanded us only when I got close to the absentee limits. My grandmother loves to tell stories about how I would bring her flowers, statuettes, and other treasures stolen from the yards of neighbors. She leaves out that she kept them all.
As we both grew older our relationship changed. I became a latchkey kid and she went a little nutty, confining herself to her bedroom. I visited to gossip, help her balance the checkbook and file her mail. After I started driving I would sign myself out of school to take her to a doctor’s appointment. At seventeen, I became anxiety ridden and depressed and she was the only one with the sense to give me a Vicodin and a splash of sherry and really really listen to what I was feeling.
When I left for college My Gram and I had both evolved into creatures who consumed mind altering substances and kept strange hours. We became the best of late night phone friends and in ten years our conversations haven’t really changed. She tells me about her aches and pains and reads me letters from her first love. I sing Patsy Cline on request and we discuss the escapades of day time television characters. Occasionally though, one of us slips up and the benign conversation gets interesting. Our loose lips bond us and on nights when we are both particularly bored with life and our drugs of choice. We enter the walk-in closet and toss family skeletons back and forth.
These calls are where I learned that my aunt was pregnant, my grandfather had cancer and my uncle was getting divorced. It was during one of these calls that I found out that my mother was born out of wedlock and that my Pa-Pa was not my biological grandfather. My grandfather is a retired lawyer who lives in Chicago and was a prick to my mother when she went to meet him the year she turned sixteen. My Pa-Pa was the submarine sailor who went AWOL to marry my nylon model of a grandmother in 1960. He adopted my mother and raised her as his own, his “Ichiban Baby-san.” Two children followed my uncle and aunt, and the family moved to Aiea, Hawaii to reside on the naval base.
The woman has lived three lives in seventy-two years and I wonder what it must feel like to be done. I want to be done. I want to know if I’ll ever have babies and what they’ll be like when they grow up. I want to know if I’ll marry and to know who will die first. I want to know my happiest time and my saddest time and know that everything else is going to fall somewhere in the middle of the road. I want to sleep when I want, eat what I want and tie a scarf around my head before I leave the house.
On the other end of the phone, I hear her light another cigarette and I reach for one of my own.